BLANKET DEFENSE PUTS OUT FIRE AGAIN
By Marc Connolly
ABC Sports Online
TEMPE, Ariz. They are the reason why Tennessee fans are celebrating their
first national championship.
They are the members of the Vols defense.
The rest of the players on Tennessee have known it all along. Now we all do, thanks to the
inspiring play of the we-hardly-knew-you-until-this-week unit.
"It's about damn time," yelled defensive end Corey Terry amidst a mob of fans,
players, alumni and media members moments after the final whistle of the Vols' 23-16
national championship-winning victory. "We've been hearing about Florida State's
defense all week."
The Volunteers defied all odds to make it to Tempe. With Peyton Manning lost to the NFL
and preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Jamal Lewis out with a season-ending injury early
on, this was a virtual no-name team. People knew who Tee Martin and Al Wilson were before
this game, but did they know names such as Eric Westmoreland, Dwayne Goodrich, Raynoch
Thompson and Steve Johnson?
Probably not. But that doesn't matter to defensive tackle Darwin Walker.
"They (FSU's defense) get the respect, but we get to bring home a trophy," said
the 6-foot-3, 281-pound junior.
Tennessee's "D" has bailed out the offense several times this season. Without
it, the Vols could very well have been crying a la Ohio State and all the other also-rans
with one or more losses. Just go back to the SEC Championship game against Mississippi
State, when the offense needed most of the game to get it's groove on. That night the
defense was an all-out saving grace.
Despite that fact, the defense was warned about Peter Warrick, Travis Minor and the cagey
play-calling of Bobby Bowden's staff that had been known to make the best defensive groups
in the country (hello, Florida) look like jayvee squads on occasion.
Warrick let them know that, too.
"You know, Warrick talked all week," said Westmoreland, who registered three
tackles for a loss, including a sack of Marcus Outzen. "But you know what? Our
secondary can play with anyone."
It's simple to back up that statement when you have the following statistic in front of
you: one catch for 7 yards.
Yes, that's the junior All-American's numbers in the national championship game. And it's
not like the 'Noles forgot he was on the
field. They just couldn't get it in his hands.
"We had a hard time getting the ball to our threat," admitted an unusually
somber Bowden about Warrick. "They did a good job taking him away."
Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer explained how.
"We had a nice mix of zone- and man-coverage," said an elated Fulmer. "The
cornerbacks got it done."
Defensive MVP Goodrich and Steve Johnson had standout games. Goodrich's 54-yard
interception return in the second quarter was a play that somewhat changed the nature of
"That interception for a touchdown intimidated us a bit," said Bowden.
It also exemplified the homework the defensive backs did to prepare for FSU. They sure
appeared prepared when Outzen decided to air it out from his 10-yard line down one
touchdown with 1:29 on the clock.
"We thought it'd be a good call," said Bowden of a play he called a Curl-and-Go.
"But we didn't execute it."
Of course not. Warrick was double-covered downfield (what else is new?), which resulted in
the interception by Johnson that put away the game for good.
This isn't to say the front seven didn't have a strong game, which they did by forcing
Outzen out of the pocket throughout the game. It was just part of the game plan to put the
contest in the hands of the secondary by pressuring the inexperienced quarterback.
"They had too much pressure on us and we didn't block well," said Outzen.
Suspect passes and in-your-shirt coverage followed, which was no surprise to the Vols.
After all, this was the game plan.
One of patience.
So whether this unit ever gets its proper due, it's the Tennessee defense that helped make
history in the first year of the Bowl Championship Series.